The Need for Specialist Disability Leadership Development

The DLI is frequently asked “wouldn’t mainstream leadership programs be just as good?”

A black spiral staircase from above.

This couldn’t happen in the mainstream

by Christina Ryan, CEO, Disability Leadership Institute

The DLI is frequently asked why disability leaders couldn’t achieve the same outcome they will get from the Future Shapers by undertaking a mainstream leadership program.


It’s because mainstream leadership programs don’t factor in disability, they deny it. Whenever leaders are encouraged to mask major aspects of themselves, they will continue to struggle with authentic leadership practice.


The Future Shapers is also more rigorous because of its holistic approach to disability and leadership. As the first program that weaves the two elements together it is understandable that the processes involved in applying this integrated approach are not well understood. It is becoming clearer that the interweaving process is transformative for participants, and results in a more holistic leader who has a greater ability to draw on all aspects of themselves.


Mainstream leadership programs are usually facilitated by non-disabled people. Most use horizontal, rather than vertical principles, and can be highly effective in producing leaders who are very skilled in navigating hierarchies and networks, with strong skills in governance and management.


Mainstream leadership programs completely ignore disability and how it is used as a leadership quality.


The closest mainstream leadership programs come to recognising disability is to have a focus on gathering disabled people together, usually in recognition of the low numbers who are in leadership positions. It is unusual for such programs to take anything other than an entry level approach, so more developed disability leaders have no recourse except to participate in mainstream leadership programs which place them in groups of abled people and ignore their disability, often actively encouraging participants to put their disability to one side, attempting to “overcome” it.


Putting your disability to one side, all day every day, takes energy and is depleting. Over time working “despite” your disability becomes a conditioned response to the mainstream world, requiring an unconscious and ongoing expense of personal energy: an ever-present undercurrent of negativity and denial.


Vertical leadership provides a real opportunity to develop leaders differently with its greater focus on self-awareness, personal reflection and collaboration. This opens the door to leaders who move beyond skills to become more robust at using their whole self, and who recognise that brushing aside elements of themselves denies their ability to continue developing as leaders.


Throughout the Future Shapers program the DLI asks participants how their disability contributes to their leadership. Initially this question is highly confronting and often results in responses about barriers and challenges. For some it reinvigorates memories of bullying or harassment. As participants develop vertically, they take a more holistic approach to this question and become less confronted and more whole in their self-reflection.


As vertical leadership is experiential, rather than academic, participants find it impossible to continue putting disability to one side. As the Future Shapers program progressed each participant became more engaged with their disability and how it worked for them. For some this process was deeply confronting, for others it generated ramifications and periods of unwellness as bodies recalibrated, resulting in stronger more self-aware leaders with an extra layer of resilience beyond their existing high levels.


Another understanding arising from the Future Shapers program is the critical need for the program facilitator, or lead mentor, to be a disabled person. Just as vertical leadership development programs recognise that someone more developed than the student should be providing guidance, disability leadership development should be guided by a more developed disability leader as they will have the deep personal understanding of both the disability experience and the rolling nature of the heat experiences faced by disability leaders.


As the Future Shapers participants recalibrated and embraced how their disability contributed to their leadership practice, the need for a more developed disability leader as program facilitator / lead mentor became more apparent. The deep dialogue being undertaken by participants turned increasingly to discussions about the combined zone of vertical leadership and disability. The process of self realisation was increasingly holistic.


These dialogues would have been impossible with a non-disabled person. Each participant acknowledged, at a time in their personal development when it became evident to them, that such conversations would not be possible unless the other participants in the dialogue were all disabled people (including the facilitator). The ability to talk openly, without justifying disability and how it behaves, in a supportive environment, became increasingly necessary for participants. This was not a planned aspect of the Future Shapers, rather it arose as a result of the process of vertical leadership development and the realisation that operating as a whole person is part of moving into post conventional thinking stages.


Participants in the Future Shapers program are already working in the mainstream. While they are all openly disabled, they also have experiences of bullying and harassment, of feeling required to put their disability to one side, and of struggling daily with ableism in the workplace. They maintain a certain wariness in order to navigate a still hostile world. Participating in a mainstream leadership program would not have addressed this wariness, rather it would have entrenched it and denied these leaders the ability to approach their leadership holistically.


As the DLI becomes more aware of the power of approaching disability leadership in an holistic way we are developing specific elements of the Future Shapers program to draw more deeply upon the untapped resource of leader’s disability experience. Participants find this work confronting and extremely rigorous: however, it is producing outstanding results that could not have been achieved otherwise.


No mainstream leadership program has this ability. The specialist approach to disability leadership development as taken by the Future Shapers program appears to be necessary, in order to most effectively support disability leaders through their vertical leadership development. The Future Shapers also confirms that specialist programs must carry a strong understanding of the disability leadership experience which means facilitation by disability leaders.


Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute

Author: hchristinar

The professional hub for disability leaders. Time to change the way leadership is understood.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s